The Ethics Of Judges' Table: A 'Top Chef' Quandary

34 minutes ago

On Thursday's Top Chef, the remaining nine chefs were divided into three teams. Each team was responsible for collecting a bunch of ingredients in a sort of scavenger hunt around Charleston, S.C., and then making them into a set of three dishes, one created by each chef.

But earlier, chef Jamie Lynch had earned immunity in this big challenge by winning the smaller "Quickfire" challenge. That meant that he was immune from being sent home if his team blew it on the scavenger-hunt dishes. The way Top Chef works, the judges choose the worst team overall, and then the worst person from that team is sent home. That meant in this case that it might not be the worst individual dish of all nine, but it's the weakest dish from the three that had the lowest average quality. But of course, if Jamie's team were the weakest, it would have to be one of the other two who went home, since he was immune.

The obvious problem with this setup was much more starkly presented a couple of seasons back, when there were only six chefs left. Similarly, they were divided into teams of three. And when chef Nick — who had immunity, just like Jamie did Thursday night — made a terrible dish that single-handedly dragged down his team and made it the weaker of the two, it meant that one of two people on his team who had made good food had to be sent home. What was worse was that the chefs on his team had tried to tell Nick that his ideas for his dish were bad, and he ignored them. And when they turned out to be right, he still stayed, and one of them, a chef named Stephanie who'd been strong all season, still left. When Nick eventually won, it was so profoundly unsatisfying that I wrote these words: "It stinks. Fully, royally, pungently, and to high heaven." It has a kind of procedural fairness (after all, everybody knew what the rules were!) but absolutely no sense of fairness.

Jamie had a much shakier situation, ethically speaking. He had been assigned the worst ingredients to work with, specifically because he had immunity. It made a certain kind of sense: you can't be eliminated, so you take the bullet and make something out of chicken breasts and peanut butter. Furthermore, according to the judges, his food was lousy, but so was his teammate Emily's, meaning for her to go home wouldn't have stung the way it did when it happened to Stephanie.

(A confession: I still miss watching Stephanie. I always thought we'd be pals if we met. She was one of my favorites. I may still be angry about this. Can you tell?)

Further-furthermore, there were three teams and not two, making it less likely that one chef could drag an otherwise strong team all the way to the bottom the way Nick could by simply tipping the balance of badness toward his team away from one other.

Are you with me?

Still, despite having a much better claim to making use of his immunity and staying, Jamie gave up his immunity voluntarily — and he was sent home. He called it pride; I call it that, plus a side of "knowing how Nick wound up looking." In a way, it seemed like a bad example of when a person should take this step, because Jamie wouldn't have been using those lousy ingredients in the first place but for the fact that he was safe. That, again, makes him very different from Nick, who seemed to be simply too arrogant to listen to anyone except himself. Jamie was trying to take one for the team to begin with; he wound up taking two. You could even argue his immunity win led directly to his elimination. Still, in effect, his argument was, "I made bad food. I should get cut."

In reality television as in life, you're always allowed to do more than what's required of you. You're always allowed to adopt a code beyond the one that's imposed externally, or even the one everyone else has agreed to. In reality television, as in life, you can decide not to use advantages that you have, according to the rules of the game, "earned." You can decide how you want to play. You can decide the rules are a floor, not a ceiling. You can even decide you are there to make friends.

And in fact, Jamie's not quite done yet. There's an online-only sideshow to Top Chef, called Last Chance Kitchen, where eliminated chefs battle each other until only one is left standing, and at some point later in the season, the one who emerges victorious re-enters. So you could see Jamie again — that's how Kristen Kish won, in fact. Kish was the frontrunner through most of season 10 until the "Restaurant Wars" challenge that happens every season, when she was the leader of the team that failed. And despite having a pretty good argument that she wasn't to blame for that failure, she took responsibility and was eliminated — but she came back through Last Chance Kitchen and won the whole thing. (The whole thing could have been avoided if Josie had just roasted the bones sooner! Okay, I might still be angry about this as well.)

Give your neck tattoos a hug for me, Jamie. As a Stephanie fan, I appreciate you.

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